Say it loud – I'm red and proud
After suffering years of abuse from schoolmates and even strangers, Gabrielle Monaghan meets the women reclaiming pride in their hair colour
Published 27/03/2014 | 02:30
As a teenager, Aoife Walsh, the first redhead to win Miss Ireland, was mercilessly teased over her fiery Titian hair. She even considered dyeing it a different colour when she was subjected to jibes such as "ginger minger".
Aoife is now one of six models fronting this month's anti-bullying "shield" campaign run by the Irish Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children. The campaign, whose celebrity supporters include Brian O'Driscoll, encourages children and schools to take a stand against bullying.
The 24-year-old is amongst the growing number of redheads who have faced prejudice and cruel taunts simply because of their hair colour and complexion. For some, the ginger-bashing – a phenomenon often classed as "gingerism" – is so extreme they would like to see bullying of redheads treated as a hate crime.
Amy McLoughlin, a 22-year-old who lives in Enfield, Co Meath, shares this sentiment. She suffered from depression after being tormented as a child for having red hair. Amy now writes a blog called Red Lips, Red Hair, where she celebrates her new-found pride in the red hair she once dyed black in an effort to fend off bullies.
"When I was in first year at secondary school, I was verbally and mentally abused by a guy," she says.
"It was very scary but the school was great about it.
"When I was 14 or 15, my make-up bag was nicked out of my bag and they pushed my books all over the floor.
"I hated being different. For three years, I dyed my hair. First it was black, then purple, then Rihanna-red and then back to black. When the roots would grow out, people would point out my red hair. But dyeing it was what I needed to do to feel more comfortable in my own skin. They were making me miserable and I was sick of it."
Catherine Duffy, a 42-year-old redhead from Youghal, says both she and her red-haired son have been singled out by bullies. She was treated for depression as a teenager because of taunts over her hair and freckles. Despite her family telling Duffy that her wavy red hair was beautiful, she kept it tied back throughout her teens and became "very withdrawn" because she "hated" herself.
"I remember dreading coming home from school, because I used to have pass a gang sitting on the wall, and they'd shout out things like 'copper top', 'did your mother leave you out in the rain too long?' and 'join the dots'," Catherine says. "I never got a physical beating because I was a good runner. But it was a really lonely time.
"I had quite a lot of freckles on my arms. One day at school, I was in the changing room for hockey, and a girl looked at my arms and said 'it looks like someone shat on you through a sieve'. I didn't eat for three days after that.
"When I was 16, my father, an army officer, was transferred to Jerusalem, and for the first time in my life I felt people looked at me differently.
"I've lived and travelled to many countries and gained a wealth of self-confidence. But my own people, the Irish, have been the hardest on me. I would put all this on a par with racism, because you're made to feel different about the colour of your hair."
After Catherine became a mother, she was horrified to discover that Alan, one of her two sons, had to endure similar bullying. After living in America for seven years, she returned to live in Youghal while her husband, who was in the Marine Corps and stationed in Japan.
"Not only was he being bullied for being a redhead, but he had a big, strong American accent," she remembers. "I was constantly getting called into his school. When he was 10, he wanted to shave his head. After three years of this, when his dad got back, Alan said he wanted to move back to America and that's where he went to high school."
Méabh Redmond's red curls have been remarked upon since she was born; the obstetrician who delivered her handed the infant to her mother with the words: "She has red hair. But don't worry, it will fall out."
It didn't. Méabh is now 28 and immensely proud of her red tresses. Yet the jokes and jibes about her appearance have not faded.
"A huge number of people have made it very clear that they do not like my hair," says the multimedia designer. "There have been regular comments and abuse shouted from cars. Sometimes people would just simply point and laugh.
"I'd hear people talk about me on the bus, at the hairdressers, in the cinema. I am treated differently because of my colouring."
One of the most painful episodes happened just a year ago. After spending an hour getting ready to go out, Méabh went to a bar to meet friends.
She was approached by two men who compared her to Kathy Burke's slobbish character in the now-defunct BBC sitcom Gimme Gimme Gimme.
"This woman had fake red hair that looked like it was dyed orange," Méabh says. "These two guys got a real kick about how I looked like her, especially because I was wearing a colourful dress and glasses. I couldn't think of a single thing to say. A friend had to say 'please go away'."
American visitors to Ireland, often raised on a diet of films like The Quiet Man, where the fiery locks of Maureen O'Hara's quick-tempered character are portrayed in glorious Technicolour, are often wildly appreciative of the Irish redhead.
After Scotland, Ireland has the highest proportion of redheads in the world, at 10pc of the population. Outside of Europe, just 0.06pc of people have red hair.
Yet amongst their own brethren, native redheads are not feeling the luck of the Irish. For them, gingerism feels like the last socially acceptable prejudice.
"It's usually Irish or English people who have a problem with my hair," Méabh says.
"While gay rights is, justifiably, the bigger issue of the day, at least they have a platform and a voice.
"I would like people with red hair to talk about the discrimination they suffer in a serious way.
"Because it's not just a bit of banter and having a laugh. I don't think people with other hair colours realise how bad the bullying can be."
Like Amy McLoughlin, Gemma Hassett, a fifth-generation publican and mature student from Quin, Co Clare, has managed to overcome the teasing she experienced as a red-haired child with "buck teeth". She now models part-time.
"I used to hate being a redhead because of the taunting at school, but I love it now," she says.
"I work in Brown Thomas in Limerick at weekends and people are always saying how lovely my hair is. I still hear the name 'ginger' the odd time but I've learned not to react."
For many redheads, there is strength in numbers. Last August, more than 100 redheads took part in the first Ginger Pride march in the UK, led by Canadian comic Shawn Hitchins, while the Irish Redhead Convention, in Crosshaven, Co Cork, is entering its fifth year.
The light-hearted convention and its parade attract thousands of redheads, who seek out competitions such as carrot-tossing and prizes for the most freckles per square inch.
Sarah Mullins, a 23-year-old genetics student at University College Cork, was crowned queen of the redheads at last year's convention after entering a competition for the longest red hair.
"Growing up, it was always instilled in me by my mother and grandmother how beautiful my hair is," she says. "There are always going to be people who have a smart remark but I've heard them all at this stage. The trick is to say something twice as smart back."
When ginger-bashing gets deadly serious
Enda Farrell, a UK-based father originally from Wexford, has called for discrimination on the basis of hair colour to be considered a hate crime after his daughter, Helena, took her own life in January 2013. The 15-year-old was bullied over her red hair and was found dead less than a mile from Farrell's home in Kendall, Cumbria.
In October, at least six red-headed kids were attacked by bullies on their way to class at Wingfield Academy in the English town of Rotherham, after a group of students decided to mark "Kick a Ginger Day".
The apparently co-ordinated assaults were reportedly inspired by an episode of the satirical animated series South Park, in which Cartman gives a speech to his class about a "disease" he calls "gingervitis" that occurs because "ginger kids have no souls".
In 2007, a family of redheads in Newcastle had to move house five times after enduring taunts, smashed windows, graffiti on their homes and attacks.